Office Porn and Sexist Jokes: Israel's High-tech Women Share Their Stories

Israeli women in the industry don’t face physical violence in the workplace, but they do have to contend with the same kinds of abuse that preserve the power structure and facilitate violence

Ruti Levy
Ruti Levy
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A woman demonstrates against violence against women in Tel Aviv, on December 12th, 2018.
A woman demonstrates against violence against women in Tel Aviv, on December 12th, 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ruti Levy
Ruti Levy

High-tech companies have not been a prominent part of the current protests against domestic violence, and the few companies that have publicly expressed support for the campaign have limited their statements to expressing opposition to murder and physical violence against women. But violence can take many forms, and there is also room for self-examination in the high-tech industry.

Just look at the following comments, submitted to a closed Facebook group for women working in local high-tech. They describe sexist jokes in meetings and on group WhatsApp messages, sexual harassment in the office gym, male colleagues viewing pornography at work and colleagues’ comments about women being inferior at certain types of jobs. This is not physical violence, but this is exactly the kind of thing that helps to preserve a sexist power structure and also enables violence to occur.

The low rates of women working at high-tech firms (35 percent), and specifically in R&D high-skilled technological positions (24 percent), are generally ascribed to their tendency not to choose these paths in high school and higher education. But the work culture reflected in the testimonies collected here also plays a key role in one of the less talked-about problems in the industry: In many cases, women who have acquired the relevant skills end up leaving the field or not going into it at all.

A joint Labor Ministry and Finance Ministry study conducted in 2017 by Yael Mazuz Harpaz and Zeev Krill found that the rate of female graduates of academic programs in computer science who end up working in the industry was 68 percent, compared to 76 percent for men. But the closer they get to age 40, the greater the discrepancy becomes. The same goes for their wages. Women in the early stages of their high-tech careers earn 7 percent less on average than men their age, and as they approach 40, the wage gap grows to 18 percent. The researchers attribute some of this gap to differences in bargaining ability and fewer opportunities for advancement. Whatever the reasons, wage discrimination is also a type of violence.

Supporting the cause, not the women

In July, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest the newly passed surrogacy law [that did not extend the right to surrogacy to single men and same-sex couple] in what was called the largest social protest since the summer of 2011. High-tech firms from the largest companies to the smallest startups very openly sided with the protesters, sending out strong messages of support.

High-tech park in Ra'anana, February 3, 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Company spokespeople and PR agents sent out emails and other messages, and made phone calls until all hours of the night to ensure that their clients appeared on the publicized lists of companies supporting the cause. They were not deterred by the moral debate surrounding the surrogacy issue. Some companies announced they would give employees significant amounts of money to help them with surrogacy efforts abroad. Those who wished to avoid talking about surrogacy spoke about LGBT rights.

But now, not only are the high-tech companies not leading the protest against violence against women, their support has been tepid at best. Just take a look at the brief list of companies supporting the protest that was published here on Tuesday. Not one representative of a high-tech company called to complain that his company was not mentioned. The only phone call that did come was from a large company that asked to have its name removed for fear that the phrase “partial strike” would adversely affect it.

With the LGBT protest, it was almost as if there was a competition regarding reputation and exposure – who is the first to come out in support, who is giving more, who will put up a billboard on the Ayalon Freeway, who will hire a bus to transport employees to show their support for equality. A day off to attend the protest was considered a basic benefit.

But yesterday, the companies that so prominently supported the earlier protest weren’t talking about hiring buses or anything of the kind. At most, they asked employees to wear black to work and allowed them to leave work for a few hours to attend the demonstration.

A protest against domestic violence in Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018,Credit: Meged Gozani

Instead of trying to interest media outlets in publishing images of their own employees at demonstrations, as the protests were underway, one PR agency sent out an email touting a study about online shopping during Cyber Week.

The few companies that did take part in the protest did not talk about women’s rights. Their comments were restricted to the subject of murder and physical violence, essentially leaving the issue of women’s rights as someone else’s problem that has nothing to do with the privileged world of the technology industry. But violence comes in many shades and, unfortunately, gender stereotypes, wage gaps, discrimination and the glass ceiling are all to be found in Israeli high-tech.

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